Trail Blazing

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail snakes its way across Wisconsin, touching nearly thirty counties and offering more than a thousand miles of hiking across terrain that ranges from groomed walkways nestled in suburbia to paths so wild they’re nearly undetectable. Fewer than thirty people have ever taken on the trail in a single attempt. Now I am one of them. 

PHOTO BY SARAH SMILEY

It's 6 a.m. and the air is already so thick and heavy it feels as if I’m breathing through a wet washcloth. I refuse to think about today’s weather forecast—highs in the low 90s—before I’ve even set foot on the trail. With about 1,100 miles ahead of me, I must remain positive.

After nine months of planning, I’m about to embark on a “thru-hike” of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, which in long-distance hiker lingo means walking the entire trail in one attempt. It’s an enormous undertaking. Fewer than thirty people have ever thru-hiked the Ice Age Trail, or IAT, and only three were women. Since I love to run, I’ll be running many of the thousand-plus miles. Still, I’ve calculated it will take me more than a month—all of September and a little of October—to travel from the trail’s western terminus here in St. Croix Falls to the eastern terminus in Sturgeon Bay’s Potawatomi State Park.

I’ve recruited family and friends to serve as my crew members. They’ll shadow me as I go, dispensing water, energy bars, bandages, dry socks—whatever I need—as I make my way across, down and up our state. At day’s end, they’ll shuttle me to friends’ homes or B&Bs to sleep, then bring me back to the trail the next morning. All I have to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other.

My husband, Ed, is on deck for the first ten days. I strike a “go-get-’em” pose next to the western terminus marker—a chunk of basalt bedrock on a bluff in Interstate State Park—and he snaps the obligatory “start” photo. Giving Ed a quick wave, I trot off down the trail, reminding myself to enjoy every minute of today’s hike. My body won’t feel this great again for many weeks.

A GLACIAL LEGACY

When I first began planning this adventure, in December 2012, no one knew what I was talking about. Hike the Ice Age Trail? What is that? Where does it go? It’s how long?! This lack of knowledge is one of the reasons I decided to attempt a thru-hike. You see, the Ice Age Trail is one of just eleven National Scenic Trails. It’s in the same vaunted group as the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest Trail, the latter popularized by Cheryl Strayed’s recent New York Times bestseller, Wild. It’s also one of just three National Scenic Trails to be located entirely within one state. It’s a big deal. A really big deal. Yet many Wisconsinites don’t know it exists.

I was one of those people not too long ago, despite having hiked, skied and run along numerous segments of the trail for years. Sure, I’d seen the name before. And its signature yellow blazes. But I never stopped to ponder that I’d used something called the Ice Age Trail in Kettle Moraine. And at Indian Lake County Park. And over at Lapham Peak in Delafield, and up at Devil’s Lake. Then a friend, Blue Mounds’ Jason Dorgan, ran the IAT in twenty-two days and six hours, setting the thru-hike record. Intrigued, I did a little digging. What I learned was fascinating.

The Ice Age Trail was conceived in the 1950s by Milwaukeean Ray Zillmer, a lawyer and avid hiker. Zillmer knew Wisconsin’s glacial remains were outstanding—in fact, they’re considered among the best-preserved in the world—so he proposed creating a ribbon of parkland that wound around the state, following the terminal moraine of the last glacier, which slid out of the state some 10,000 years ago. This would allow people to easily view prime examples of glacial landforms: eskers, kettles, moraines, kames and more. Over time, Zillmer’s idea morphed into that of a hiking trail, and in the early 1970s trail construction officially began. Today, the Cross Plains-based Ice Age Trail Alliance, or IATA, a nonprofit organization and accredited land trust, is in charge of developing, maintaining and promoting the IAT.

No one knows for sure why the Ice Age Trail never grew in our collective consciousness. Maybe it’s because Wisconsin isn’t home to the same kind of avid hiking culture found in mountainous regions such as Colorado or New England. Perhaps it’s because in the early years, the trail would grow, then recede, as trail segments were created through easily dissolvable handshake agreements with landowners. “We lost as much trail as we gained back then,” says Pam Schuler, the National Park Service’s Ice Age Trail manager. Or maybe it’s because Wisconsinites simply aren’t accustomed to thinking that our corner of the U.S., often derided as “flyover country,” can be home to anything truly special.

TAMING THE TRAIL

I’m several days into my hike, heading due east toward Antigo. Trail conditions here in the northwoods are shocking to my urban-trail mindset. Thick brambles claw at my arms and legs, some up to my shoulders. Wild raspberry vines snake across the forest floor like tripwires, waiting to snag my ankles. I come upon a beaver dam so overgrown with vegetation that I can’t see the trail, the yellow blazes or even the water. Using my trekking poles like a pair of white canes, I stick them in front of me and tap-tap-tap my way across. The Ice Age Trail that I know is comprised of neatly mowed paths and dirt trails so regularly trampled upon no weed would dare show its face. Some of the trails here sport sections that are nearly invisible, barely passable and not remotely hospitable.

PHOTO BY SARAH SMILEY

Maps guide the way along the many miles of the Ice Age Trail.

But my irritation turns to admiration after I start chatting with some of the folks who help with the trail and begin to understand how the IAT works. This immensely long trail, which traverses everything from thick forests and vast prairies to rocky bluffs and the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, is largely powered by volunteers. Gathered together in twenty-one IATA chapters, members (and anyone willing to help) dedicate thousands upon thousands of hours every year—more than 71,000 in 2013—to build, maintain and improve the trail. In a few areas, like Devil’s Lake and Indian Lake, state and county park employees help mow and maintain it. Some of the 130-plus private landowners who allow the trail to run through their property also offer to keep their sections in shape. But it’s mainly up to the volunteers. And it’s simply not possible for them to keep every mile in pristine condition 365 days of the year, especially in remote, lightly traveled areas where there are many miles of trail. Or in any section, remote or populous, where Mother Nature gets a little testy and, say, blows down a wide swath of trees.

So while the IAT overall is in great shape, certain spots can be a bit gnarly. Hikers must be prepared for anything, from missing or covered signage to dense vegetation and flooding. Having a compass—and knowing how to properly use it—is mission critical. 

FALLING IN LOVE

Day eight and I’m deep in the bosom of the Chequamegon National Forest. I’ve seen just five other hikers so far, three on the first day. This is the wilderness, pure and simple. There are no soft thumps or whirs or whines—those ever-present background noises you never realize are there until they’re not. I’m ensconced in a silence thick and smooth and soft, like a cushy layer of bubble wrap. I pull it around myself and let its peacefulness seep into my pores, knowing that once I emerge from the northwoods, the harsh sounds of humanity will rip it to shreds.

A few days later, still snugged in my warm bubble of silence, I bump into Adam Hinz, also thru-hiking the trail. I startle a bit to be suddenly facing another human being. Hinz, thirty-four, started from the eastern terminus and has been out here several months, he says, giving his bushy beard a quick stroke for emphasis. Searching for a life-altering experience, he pondered walking across America. His cousin suggested hiking the Ice Age Trail instead. “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s at Devil’s Lake,’ and he said, ‘No, it’s, like, 1,200 miles long,’” Hinz recalls. “I looked online and thought, ‘This is right here in my backyard. Maybe I should do it.’” So here he is.

Hinz quickly ticks off a list of his favorite experiences so far: Seeing a bobcat, then a bald eagle in its nest. Enjoying the beauty of the Blue Hills segment in Rusk County. Being invited on a boat ride with a family who later bought him a meatloaf dinner. As he rambles on, I smile. Hinz is in love with the trail. And I totally get it.

We part ways and soon I’m circling around Antigo, then heading south toward Janesville. The remaining two-thirds of the trail should be easier, I’m told by members of the IATA. Flatter. But there will be many more road miles.

On signs around the state, in print and online, the Ice Age Trail is billed as 1,000 miles, 1,100 miles, 1,200 miles and all sorts of figures in between. Since it’s a trail in progress, no one knows exactly how long it will be when it’s finally done. But as of today, there are roughly 650 miles of completed, marked segments (mainly off-road trails, but some that run through cities as well), plus another 450 or so that the IATA dubs “connecting routes.” These are suggested road walks that take you from the end of one trail segment to the start of the next.

Why are there still so many road miles after fifty years? Long-distance paths aren’t magically created overnight. The process normally takes decades. You have to identify trail corridors, purchase the land or arrange to protect it in perpetuity, and then develop it. It takes a lot of time, effort and money, and the main two governmental entities that can help build the IAT—Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources and the National Park Service—are short on resources these days. That leaves things mainly to the Alliance.

Mike Wollmer, executive director of the IATA, says roughly a thousand transactions (land purchases and trail easements) are needed to complete the trail. In 2012, a banner year for creating new trail, sixteen transactions were completed. “At one point in time, I thought the Ice Age Trail would be completed in my daughter’s life,” says Wollmer. “Now I don’t think it will be completed in my grandchildren’s lives.”

CATCHING THE EXCITEMENT

It’s mid-September and I’ve been out here several weeks now, spending eight to ten hours a day on the trail. Already, I feel very connected to the land. I’ve learned to identify the harsh, primordial cry of the cranes that seem to be everywhere. I know that the heavy rustling in the underbrush I hear a few times a day, once alarming, is merely grouse flapping away. And those soft, brown mounds filled with seeds I periodically see sitting right in the middle of the trail? Bear scat. No different than dog poop on the sidewalk.  

My adventure is also teaching me the trail has a great sense of humor. The Chaffee Creek segment leads me through an immense culvert tucked under I-39 south of Coloma, then spits me out at a wayside. Just south of Devil’s Lake State Park, hopping on the Merrimac Ferry is mandated to get to the Gibraltar segment across the Wisconsin River—surely the most enjoyable mileage I’ll “walk.” While tackling an unrelenting stretch of hilly blacktop west of Madison that becomes more and more painful with every step, I come across the words “SHUT UP LEGS” and “SMILE THIS IS FUN” spray-painted onto the road. It takes me a second to realize these aren’t official IAT messages of encouragement; rather, I’m on part of the Ironman cycling course. Approaching Verona’s Valley View segment, I’m guided into a cul-de-sac dotted with bloated McMansions, then up a lowbrow tangle of trail stamped in between two of the more self-important estates.

Soon I’m circling Janesville and in the home stretch—a long push northeast through Kettle Moraine State Forest, over to the lakeshore, then up to Sturgeon Bay. I’m staying overnight in a lot of B&Bs now, and the innkeepers are uniformly excited to assist me in my endeavor. At Whitewater’s Hamilton House, owner Kathie Fleming offers to grab a cup of coffee for me from the upstairs beverage station when she sees I’m gingerly padding around the home’s main level on my now chronically achy feet. At Two Rivers’ Red Forest Inn, innkeeper Kay Rodewald insists on washing my clothes, muddy and wet after a rainy day on the trail. When I arrive at Algoma’s Skaliwags restaurant for my final dinner on the trail, chef-owner Chris Wiltfang has been tipped off about my adventure by Kari Anderson of B&B At the Water’s Edge, my home for the night. Wiltfang hollers at the patrons to quiet down, then announces in a booming voice, “This woman here just hiked 1,100 miles on the Ice Age Trail! Let’s give her a round of applause!” The place erupts in hoots and cheers.

PHOTO BY MELANIE RADZICKI MCMANUS

The boardwalk in the West Bend segment of the Ice Age Trail.

But it’s not just innkeepers and restaurateurs who get excited about people thru-hiking the Ice Age Trail. It’s pretty much everyone who learns what you’re doing—who learns that such a cool trail exists, right here in Wisconsin. When I’d bumped into experienced backpackers Drew Hendel of Bellevue, Washington, and Paul Kautz of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, just outside Langlade County’s Parrish Hills segment, both were impressed, and a bit shocked, at the generosity of the folks they’d met. “We stopped in one bar, and the bartender let us camp in his camper in the backyard,” says Hendel. “In Mishicot, a lady drove down the street and said, ‘I just have to ask what you’re doing.’ We told her, and … she invited us to stay overnight in her house, and then we had dinner with her, her husband and son, plus breakfast in the morning.”

Not surprisingly, Alliance members and other trail enthusiasts go all out to help hikers, too, whether they’re walking a day, a week or a month. Unofficially dubbed Trail Angels, these folks let the IATA give out their contact info to hikers, with offers to drop water along the trail, shuttle hikers to and from trailheads, let them camp in their backyards or stay in their homes—anything to help you enjoy the trail. All you have to do is call.

A WALK TO REMEMBER

I finish my hike in Potawatomi State Park on a crisp October afternoon a changed person. The trail is now part of who I am, and I want nothing more than to spread the IAT gospel to anyone who will listen.

When I chat with Hinz a few months later, he feels exactly the same. “I’d like to shake random people and say, ‘Go hike the trail!’” he says. Unfortunately, that would be a bit difficult; his thru-hike has inspired him to move to California to study environmental health and water quality control. So I’ll shake people for Hinz. For myself and for Ray Zillmer. For all of us. Go hike the trail.

For more information: The Ice Age Trail Alliance has a wealth of trail resources at iceagetrail.org. The Wisconsin Bed & Breakfast Association, at wbba.org, works  with the IATA to offer lodging options.

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a Sun Prairie-based writer. She is one of five women to date to thru-hike the Ice Age Trail and holds the women’s thru-hike record: thirty-six days and five hours.

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